The Massachusetts men’s basketball team has been waiting for tonight’s first-round Atlantic 10 Tournament game against Dayton its entire season.
Getting there was the hard part.
After a disappointing 77-73 loss to Fordham on Saturday, the host of tonight’s contest was up in the air. The Minutemen (15-14, 7-9 A-10) were blessed with the news that they would host the Flyers (19-12, 7-9 A-10) for the first time ever in the history of the Atlantic 10 Tournament.
“At the end of the game we were all disappointed, but then another opportunity opened up for us. [It was] something we were playing for all season,” said center Sean Carter. “It’s been rough for us, [but we’re] just trying to get ready for this game. Everybody has the same goal in mind. This is a game that’s very important.”
Carter explained that before and after Saturday’s contest, the team was checking scores and figuring out potential opponents.
Carter said the Minutemen “definitely have to take advantage” of hosting the first-round game against an opponent it already defeated earlier this season.
Dayton returns to the Mullins Center after losing, 55-50, to the Minutemen on Jan. 9. The contest was highly defensive and lacked offensive electricity, which UMass has shown at times this season.
“It was awhile ago, so I think both teams have changed some,” said UMass coach Derek Kellogg at practice on Monday. “I still respect them as a team and a program. I think they’re one of the more talented teams in the conference.”
The talent of the Flyers stems from senior forward Chris Wright, who is tied for sixth in the conference in rebounding. During the last game between these two sides, Wright (13.7 points per game) was held to a pair of points.
While Carter said that the Minutemen will try to contain Wright again, he expects the defense to heighten from both sides.
“The defense of both teams will be picked up,” said Carter. “Around this time of year, it’s now or never. Both teams are going to come out and fight.”
While Carter said that the game would be defensive, Kellogg said that he expects the game to open up a little more and that, while no one should expect to see 90-plus points by the Minutemen, there will be more scoring.
“I want to have the pace of the game,” said Kellogg. “I’m anticipating a little bit more of a pace.”
Kellogg will look for guard Anthony Gurley to control the pace, as he has been on a scoring tear as of late with a 30-point performance against the Rams on Saturday. Gurley was recently named to the A-10 Third Team for his success on the offensive side of the ball this season.
Gurley and UMass will look to build off the impressive A-10 playoff performance last season, when the team won its first tournament game since 2002 when they defeated Charlotte, 59-56.
Despite the motivation to continue its string of luck in the A-10 postseason, Kellogg wasn’t quick to forget the atmosphere that arrives along with the Flyers in tonight’s game.
“It’s conference tournament time,” said Kellogg. “It gives everybody a chance in college basketball to do something special, to be a Cinderella team.”
At practice on Monday afternoon, the potential glass slippers (Adidas sneakers) arrived on the court and created smiles all across the Minutemen faces.
For Kellogg, the Minutemen show an enormous amount of care and compassion for the team, which will be a key element as the postseason unfolds.
“One great thing is that you know that they care and they want to do something,” said Kellogg. “There was some emotion in the locker room. At least if they want to play and want to continue to go, then we have a chance.”
Herb Scribner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.